[The ninth in a series on inclusiveness.]
Western societies treat liberal ideals of freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness as uniquely authoritative. Those ideals increasingly trump all other considerations and silence all criticism.
As a practical matter, they mean rule by experts, bureaucrats, and commercial interests that promise to give everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. Other authorities aren’t rational and neutral enough.
Under such circumstances, the function of representative institutions becomes legitimating decisions already reached in other ways. Traditional less formal institutions such as family and religion become strictly private in significance. The point of multiculturalism and similar tendencies is to keep them so by destroying the public relevance of every particular tradition.
No sane, educated, and well-intentioned person sees a problem with such tendencies. Let each do what he wants, subject to the equal right of others, and let those who know best decide the specifics of public measures, subject to popular approval. What could be more rational and right? Anything else would be ignorant and oppressive.
Or so it seems. Nonetheless, perfect solutions arouse suspicion, especially since politics have evidently reached a dead end. In economics, international relations, and domestic policy, no one knows what to do. Why are we in such a fix, if our understanding of basic principles is so advanced?
In fact, our problems go to the heart of public life and thought. Under such circumstances, we need to question positions that are now beyond discussion in respectable discourse. Hence the need for an alternative right.
Perfect solutions tyrannize, and life is too complex for experts to manage. That remains true even when we are promised a system of liberation based on expert knowledge. More and more, it seems that among us:
- Freedom means comprehensive control of human relations so we don’t oppress each other.
- Equality means rule by irresponsible and unrepresentative elites. Otherwise there’s no one to keep us equal.
- Inclusiveness means distinctions can’t be allowed to matter, so they have to be destroyed or neutered.
- Democracy means everyone has to be powerless. Otherwise, some would be more powerful than others and that wouldn’t be democratic.
- Giving people what they want means destroying the goods they care about most, since those goods can’t be equal, optional, and externally manageable.
- Reason means submission of the mind and will to expert pronouncements that always turn out to promote the power and authority of experts and bureaucrats.
- Diversity means that people attached to nonliberal principles must be demonized as bigots and fundamentalists.
It’s evident something has gone wrong. But what?
The present situation reflects contradictions hidden in modern ideals. It thus has an essential intellectual component.
The problems have to do with the most basic issues: how we acquire knowledge, and how we choose our goals. Liberal modernity tries to be clear, rational, and progressive. With that in mind it tries to simplify things so they can be understood and put right.
That means it insists on making men and things manageable. As time goes by it finds more and more that needs reform, and becomes more and more demanding and intrusive. The result is that it goes to extremes and becomes tyrannical and destructive.
In particular, liberals insist on treating knowledge as strictly public and goods as strictly private. The alternative would be obscurantism and oppression—government based on claims of private knowledge that override individual preferences.
Knowledge, then, is public and scientific, while goods are personal and subjective. If you want to know what’s true, you ask the experts, who determine the answer by objective critical standards. As to questions of value, however, each of us defines his goods, chooses his goals, and pursues his purposes as freely as possible and however he wishes.
Such principles seem the quintessence of reason, but they have consequences that are much less reasonable. In particular, they tell us we have wants, and can’t satisfy them on our own, because our own knowledge isn’t reliable. As a result, somebody else has to arrange matters for us. It’s for our own benefit.
They also tell us that wants conflict, since they are individual and arbitrary, and we can’t resolve the conflicts for ourselves, since we just want what we want and there’s nothing to tell us what should give way to what. The conclusion is that someone else has to decide things for us. Experts have to cut our wants down to size and make sure we only want things that fit the smooth functioning of the system.
The result is that we live in perpetual tutelage. What was intended as freedom and equality becomes an odd sort of servitude. Kindergarten becomes the model for the whole of social life.
To avoid such a result, politics must be based on recognitions that are more realistic and less mindlessly simple:
- Not everything can be reduced to a clear rational system, and not all impulses are equally good.
- Goods and goals are partly social, since what’s on offer and what it’s worth depends partly on other people.
- Knowledge is partly local, individual, and inarticulate, since not everything can be made explicit, noted down, and incorporated into expertise.
- For that reason, much of our knowledge comes from experience and the resulting growth of habits that work.
- More generally, our society learns through tradition, and as social beings we learn through participation in the traditions of our society.
The effect of such recognitions is fundamental rejection of liberal modernity. Since expert knowledge, social engineering, and subjective wants aren’t enough for social life, expertise, utility, and equal freedom can’t be the highest standards.
We need a different social ideal. Instead of an equal, free, efficient, and rational society, we need to aim at a society that functions normally in the way societies normally function. Such a society would feature legitimate tradition and particularity as ordering principles, along with the boundaries, exclusions, and authoritative attachments needed for them to function.
Such things are basic to every actual society but they are entirely inconsistent with equal freedom and utilitarian rationality as ultimate standards. The point of rejecting contemporary inclusivist liberalism, then, is to re-establish the intellectual preconditions of a society that works and makes sense.
To get started we need to go to the basics and:
- Claim the right to define the problems. The point of politics is not getting rid of inequalities, it’s facilitating a life worth living. If you can’t talk about what makes life worth living, you can’t talk about politics.
- Reclaim history. It’s not the story of human emancipation culminating in an ever more comprehensive system of global human rights. It’s the story of attempts to deal with problems and attain goods. As such, it has its victories and defeats, very few of which are unequivocal or irreversible.
- Reclaim the concept of the normal. People may question what it includes, but we can’t get along without it, and tradition is the normal way to establish what it is.
- Claim the high ground. We have little hope of achieving anything enduring unless we connect our views to grand principle and the common good. Men of good will should recognize the need for a normally functioning society. Why not insist on the point and keep it front and center?
Once those things are done there is still a huge amount to argue about. It’s clear that general antidiscrimination laws are bad, but those laws are part of something much larger. What do we do about that, and how do we fight it? For that matter, what do we do about technology? Religion? The idiocy of youth? The obstinacy of age? Current corruptions? Foreign threats? Actually-existing diversity? And should we aim at reform, revolution, or secession?
There’s a lot that needs doing. The basic point, though, is that the situation is hopeless until we lay claim to reason, history, and the public good. Battle cries, denunciations, and good strong blows may be fun and even useful, but they are subordinate. Opposing inclusiveness isn’t bigotry, it’s support for what is normal and human. Our first need is to make fruitful discussion possible, among ourselves, with others, and in response to objections. And it is that goal that an alternative right must emphasize if it is to define itself and achieve anything that matters.